When interviewed by FMC in June of 2009, Grant and Justine Keefer were looking at Yellow Point Cranberries with pride, after eight years of successfully restoring a 43-acre farm that had been left to fallow for more than three decades.
Raised on his father’s small cranberry farm in Richmond, British Columbia, Grant had moved to the Ladysmith area for a new beginning. With help from family, friends and new neighbours, the Keefers spent months clearing and leveling the land and brush cutting.
They planted in May 2002. The first year it was eight acres of cranberries with the first official harvest in October of 2005.
In the past three years the Keefer family has been enjoying considerable success with their innovative small farm operation, a wide range of specialty food products and other enterprises.
“We’ve planted another two acres,” says Grant. “Currently we are prepping for next year to get another five acres ready for planting. We are propagating a new variety in greenhouse plots (limited vine available).
“That vine will be grown out in plugs next spring and planted in the field. Other new varieties are available and we may consider trying them as well. We’ve invested both time and money and everything is operating smoothly.”
As for new products, Justine has worked hard with the kitchen staff to create a new line of dry goods including scones, brownies, cakes and other items, all with dried cranberries. There are take home and bake products that are very popular and a nice compliment to the preserve line.
They are also still allocating 15 acres to supply management for Ocean Spray with half harvested as fresh fruit for Canadian Thanksgiving. The other half is harvested for process – juice, dried cranberries and more.
Their seven-year-old daughter Clara is also very busy, occupied with the things a normal Grade 2 girl would be doing like swimming, ballet, skating and other pursuits.
“She does however have some chores to do, “Grant points out. “ If she wants pets, she must clean them, feed them and take good care of them. This past spring she wanted chickens. I built her a coop and we bought 24 chicks.
“We gave away 12 to friends and family at eight weeks and she kept the remaining 12. When they started laying eggs, she told her friends at school and their parents. She ended up with five mothers buying eggs; each had an assigned day for the eggs. Clara in turn had to buy feed with the money, collect eggs, feed and water before school.
“She wasn’t so big on buying the food at first, but she learned a good lesson here. We also helped with a gladiola garden. She laid out the rows, planted them with me and weeded them. She will sell them on the side of the road as they come into bloom. At harvest she comes to the farmers markets with us and helps sell the cranberries – she learned to make change last year – a great learning experience for her. I grew up in the u-pick pea and strawberry field doing the same.”
The family has grown with the arrival of son Jack in May of 2010, now two-years-old, eager to do what his sister does and likely ready to compete for jobs before too long.
“Farm staff has come up a bit, especially at harvest,” adds Grant. “I have a few regular part time guys. Two teens do most of the mowing and weed whacking work and a semi -retired fellow helps on every level from fixing equipment, irrigation installation to working on the harvest.
“We have a great community and I have always been able to get people out for harvest help. In the kitchen and store we have changed the operation a bit. In the past we were open and staffed from about April to Christmas. We have learned that even though we are in a touristy area, the spring and summer is not busy for us.
“As soon as September rolls around and the other farm store/artisan / tourist stores are reducing hours, we ramp up and get busy. Consequently we reduced staff and opening hours for summer and increased them in the fall winter.
In terms of agri-tourism and education, these are areas where they have reduced their solicitation. Grant says they don’t want to stop them completely and have three very good tour guides to help out when needed. The family always has a free self-guided tour available to the public.
“We do work with a tour company in Nanaimo that brings us full buses several times during the year, “Grant continues. “These are usually when a cruise ship comes in. These are the best tours because they are large enough, two or three buses staggered over four hours.
“This is a large enough group to make staffing efficient and we can customize the tour to work with their schedule.
“Slow steady growth is our key, with the focus on growing cranberries and filling in with other things as we see fit. Not everything works but it’s good to try things out. If it isn’t going to pay for itself eventually it needs to be changed or dropped.”
In terms of sales, from the kitchen store point of view, they have been approached to sell wholesale or have someone distribute the products. They feel the margins are too low at this point and would need to increase staff. So they are happy with keeping it retail only.
Their products have been shipped to people all over North America.
“Everything is fluid,” Grant says. “We are always trying new things – some work and some don’t. We try to keep our crop consistent with no big changes in growing practices, for example fertilization. Too often I have seen growers push for a huge crop only to find themselves on a roller coaster ride with up and down crops every other year.
“Just like the rollercoaster, yields will get lower and eventually bottom out. We need to be aware of the tough economic times out there now. We know the inputs will keep going up in cost. I like to try to work with others to increase buying power – but it doesn’t always work. If we can keep our crop moving at the same pricing we should be happy. If we try to increase the costs of our product too much we will lose customers. It is always harder to win them back after they are gone.”
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